See D. J. Danelski, A Supreme Court Justice Is Appointed (1964).
The unifying force in this fascinating career was Butler's strong and enduring sense of nationalism. An Irish nobleman, he severed his ties with the old world to embrace the concept of a permanent union of the thirteen states. His own military and political experiences then led him to the conviction that a strong central government, as the bedrock of political and economic security, was essential to protect the rights not only of his own social class and adopted state but also of all classes of citizens and all the states.
The overwhelming success of the forces of the British Empire and its allies ended French territorial claims in North America and brought about profound changes in the nature of the mother country's relationship with its American colonies. To occupy Canada and other new lands won during the war, Parliament for the first time ordered the permanent stationing of large British garrisons in North America. Because the government had incurred heavy war debts, Parliament chose to support these troops by levying new taxes on the colonists. Americans generally disagreed with Parliament over the need for the garrisons, arguing that their local militias could handle the defense of the colonies. They also opposed the new taxes that began with the Stamp Act of 1765.
Butler's regiment was serving on garrison duty in Nova Scotia at the time, but he could not long escape becoming embroiled in the growing controversy. In 1768 the intensity of protests over Parliament's taxes in Massachusetts led London to order the 29th Foot, along with a second infantry regiment the 14th Regiment of Foot, to Boston to maintain the King's peace. In 1771, the year after the "Massacre," Butler, now a major, married Mary Polly Middleton on January 10th. She was the daughter of wealthy South Carolina planter and colonial leader Henry Middleton. Marriage led him to seek new directions, for when the 29th received orders to return to Britain in 1773, he decided to leave the army. He sold his commission and used the proceeds to purchase a plantation in the coastal region of South Carolina, adapting to the lifestyle of a southern landowner with apparent ease. Management skills learned in the military undoubtedly proved useful as he increased his land holdings to over 10,000 acres (40 square km). He also began to accumulate a small fleet of coastal vessels to support his expanding business ventures.
When war broke out between Great Britain and the colonies in 1775, Butler joined several other former British officers (including the future generals Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, and Richard Montgomery) in casting his lot with the American cause. In Butler's case the success of his business interests as well as the important role played by the Middleton family in the Patriot movement in South Carolina clearly influenced his decision. Butler's father-in-law had been the president of the First Continental Congress, and a brother-in-law would soon sign the Declaration of Independence. Butler himself lost little time in expressing his patriotic sentiments by standing for local election. He began his public service in 1776 when his neighbors elected him to a seat in the South Carolina legislature, a post that he continued to hold until 1789.
The decision to reorganize South Carolina's defenses followed in the wake of a shift in Britain's war strategy. By 1778 the King and his ministers found themselves faced with a new military situation. Their forces in the northern and middle states had reached a stalemate with Washington's continentals, now more adequately supplied and better trained after Valley Forge. The British also faced the prospect of France entering the war as an active partner of the Americans. In response, they adopted a "southern strategy." Assuming that the many Loyalists in the southern states would rally to the Crown if supported by regular troops, they planned a conquest of the rebellious colonies one at a time, moving north from Georgia. They launched their new strategy with the capture of Savannah in December 1778.
Butler joined in the effort to mobilize South Carolina's citizen-soldiers to repulse the threatened British invasion and later helped prepare the state units used in the counterattack designed to drive the enemy from Georgia. During the operation, which climaxed with an attempted investiture of Savannah, Butler served as a volunteer aide to General Lachlan McIntosh. The hastily raised and poorly prepared militia troops were no match for the well-trained British defenders, and the effort to relieve Savannah ended in failure.
In 1780 the British captured Charleston, and with it most of South Carolina's civil government and military forces. Butler, as part of a command group deliberately left outside the city, escaped. During the next two years he employed his considerable military talents in developing a counterstrategy to defeat the enemy's southern operations. He and his fellow South Carolinians, along with their neighbors in occupied portions of Georgia and North Carolina, refused to submit to London's demand that they surrender. Instead, they organized a resistance movement. Butler, as adjutant general, worked with former members of the militia and Continental Army veterans such as Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter to integrate their various partisan efforts into a unified campaign, in conjunction with the operations of the Southern Army under the command of Horatio Gates and later Nathanael Greene.
These partisan tactics involved considerable expense and personal risk for Butler who, as a former Royal officer, remained a special target for the British occupation forces. Several times he barely avoided capture. Once, surprised by the sudden arrival of enemy dragoons in the middle of the night, he escaped by sneaking from his home dressed only in his nightshirt. On another occasion, a British regiment, repeatedly denounced by Butler for plundering civilian properties he called it a "band of jailbirds" placed a bounty on his head. Throughout the closing phases of the southern campaign he personally contributed cash and supplies to help sustain the American forces and also assisted in the administration of prisoner-of-war facilities.
Butler's experiences as a soldier and planter-legislator influenced his forceful support for a strong union of the states at the Convention. As a military leader during the campaigns in the south he had come to appreciate the need for a national approach to defense. As a planter and merchant, especially after his trip to Europe, he came to understand that economic growth and international respect depended upon a strong central government. At the same time, he energetically supported the special interests of his region.
This dual emphasis on national and state concerns puzzled his fellow delegates, just as other apparent inconsistencies would bother associates throughout the rest of his political career. For example, Butler favored ratification of the Constitution, yet absented himself from the South Carolina convention that approved it. Later, he would serve three separate terms in the United States Senate, but this service was marked by several abrupt changes in party allegiance. Beginning as a Federalist, he switched to the Jeffersonian party in 1795, only to become a political independent in 1804. These changes confused the voters of his state, who rejected his subsequent bids for high public offices, although they did elect him three more times to the state legislature as an easterner who spoke on behalf of the west.
Butler retired from politics in 1805 and spent much time in Philadelphia where he had previously established a summer home. He continued his business ventures, becoming one of the wealthiest men in America with huge land holdings in several states. Like other Founding Fathers from his region, Butler also continued to support the institution of slavery. But unlike Washington or Thomas Jefferson, for example, Butler never acknowledged or grasped the fundamental inconsistency in simultaneously defending the rights of the poor and supporting slavery.
The contradictions in this fascinating man led associates to label him an "eccentric" and an "enigma." Within his own lights, however, he followed a steady path along lines which were intended to produce the maximum of liberty and respect for those individuals whom he classed as citizens. His later political maneuverings were animated by his desire to maintain a strong central government, but a government that could never ride roughshod over the rights of the private citizen. He opposed the policies of the Federalists under Alexander Hamilton because he decided that they had sacrificed the interests of westerners and had sought to force their policies on the opposition; he later split with Jefferson and the Democrats for the same reason. Butler never wavered from his central emphasis on the role of the common man. Late in life he summarized his view: "Our System is little better than [a] matter of Experiment.... much must depend on the morals and manners of the people at large." This was certainly an interesting view, coming as it did from a former member of the British hereditary aristocracy.